As a child, I looked forward to the annual Chicago Auto Show for midyear vehicle changes among the car brands.

As I grew older, I saw a significant change: The event morphed from spring preview of new cars to a period of tech announcements.

The Detroit show, rechristened the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), attracted more media attention. But the annual consumer electronics show — now known simply as CES — became a venue for automakers to display new tech features.

Building Desire

The two events have collectively ushered in opportunities for automakers to generate longing and desire for great customer experiences. What's more, those branding efforts can lead to sales.

At the NAIAS this year, for example, General Motors CEO Mary Barra spoke about the Chevrolet Bolt, the first affordable mass-produced electric vehicle with a 200 mile range between charges.

Barra told the automotive press that the Bolt EV concept "is a game-changing electric vehicle designed for attainability, not exclusivity.”

GM also touted its $500 million investment in Lyft, a vehicle sharing service. The partnership pairs development interests from both businesses: GM’s investment in autonomous vehicles with Lyft’s development of services based on data from its on-demand usage model.

The GM announcement mirrors an earlier announcement from Ford executives at CES.

Raj Nair, Ford EVP and CTO, and CEO Mark Fields announced the tripling of Ford autonomous-programmed Fusion test fleet, which is now the largest among automakers.

They also shared the status on Smart Mobility, 25 global experiments ranging from connectivity to advanced analytics. The initiative is meant to incorporate driver behaviors from several advancing technologies into Ford’s engineering protocols and business development.

Deeper Meanings

These advances represent more than the birth of new electric-powered and autonomous vehicles. They represent shifts in branding among automakers — ways to manage customer experience before and after the vehicle sale.

Ford, for example, introduced a Black Label option to its Lincoln brand, meant to provide concierge service and personalization options to vehicle owners.

Chevrolet, meanwhile, offers Corvette Z07 buyers the opportunity to build their vehicle’s engine at the plant while it is assembled, making an experience that supports the buyers’ expectation for the premium sports car.

Many of these initial efforts are coming from luxury brands. In fact creating experiences in luxury brands is not entirely new.

For years, German auto manufacturers have offered European delivery programs so that American customers can pick up their vehicle in Germany and drive it in Europe before returning home.

Recent announcements, however, are clear signals that manufacturers want to broaden customer experience to include high volume models.

Auto execs are realizing expansion is required in order to survive.

During an appearance at the Autoblog news desk for NAIAS, Mark Fields shared how the company is discovering that drivers in urban areas want services that eliminate the high insurance and maintenance costs associated with vehicle ownership in their neighborhoods.

In fact, leasing has primed customers to reevaluate their transportation needs — and rethink the merits of shared ownership, leasing and renting.

Matter of Survival

Aligning the customer experience with expectations is essential to the survival of traditional auto manufacturers.

Back in 2014 Gartner declared customer experience would become the top differentiator for sales, greater than innovation spending. Gartner later shared the key drivers for customer experience expected by 2020.

This interest in building customer experience contrasts from past efforts to drive earnings growth through sales of as many vehicles possible to recoup development cost.

New technology is increasing vehicle costs, as well as shifting what consumers consider important in a vehicle purchase.

Overall marketers should watch the outcomes of the customer experience strategies automakers use to attract and retain customers.

Automobiles are increasingly aligned with the Internet of Things (IoT) environment. This provides automakers opportunities to learn how an organization with engineered products delivers customer experience. It also gives them a chance to share that insight with other marketers and managers across industries and verticals.

I worked as an engineer at Ford for eight years and can say that engineering a vehicle requires an constant learning process about customer preferences. Those preferences are not always directly stated, and their discovery is an iterative process of refining vehicle attributes.

With customer preferences increasingly being represented through data, the automotive industry is a great field for learning what ideas actual correlate into valuable insights.

It’s a revolutionary time, one that provides raw material for best practices of great customer experience strategies.

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Title image courtesy of NAIAS